This time last year we’d been enjoying (if that’s the right word) long day walks at least once a months for about 6 months as we prepared to walk the West Highland Way, 95 miles from Glasgow to Fort William, camping and carrying all our food. We’ve had a difficult time the last two months, with him bruising/cracking a rib, then he was busy, then we both had ‘orrible colds, then it snowed. And so forth. At any rate, Saturday was our first serious walk in preparation for this year’s holiday. We’re planning to walk the ‘Sutherland Trail‘ across northwest Scotland from Lochinver to Tongue, or thereabouts. Fewer miles, but much harder walking, plus the chance of getting to the top of some truly classic mountains. Including Suilven. But only if we’re fit.
Saturday was 13 miles north on the gritstone Derwent Edge in Derbyshire, then back briefly along the shores of Ladybower Reservoir before heading straight back up the hill to return to our starting point. All this because we fell in love with long-distance walking in Scotland…
imagine wavy lines and/or flapping calendar pages to indicate time passing
On 13 May 2008 we crammed 6 months of fretting, walking and thinking about stuff into our BIG packs (mine is a Osprey Ariel 62, his a Osprey Crescent 70), got into a taxi and caught the train (trains, actually) North to Glasgow. The train journey was a bit of adventure in itself, with a death on the railway line jeopardising our most important connection and necessitating a mad taxi journey up the motorway to the mainline station. But we made it to Milngavie in the end, walked up to the B&B, dumped the packs, found a restaurant and, more important, found the starting point for the West Highland Way. The next morning we ate a fabulous cooked breakfast and wondered where we’d be in a week’s time. Dead of exhaustion? Triumphant in Fort William? The packs seemed so heavy (mine 18kg with water, his 22kg) that exhaustion seemed the best bet. I didn’t take a picture of the start; this website has one, and the subsequent pages have maps, too.
We chose May because it’s the driest month and the midges are not out in force. I had not thought about it being spring! Mugdock Wood was just coming into leaf, the air was full of birdsong and the woodland floor was a haze of blue. The scent of bluebells was intoxicating. And my pack was soooo heavy I was wondering why I’d ever proposed this walk. On a low hill (I had to walk uphill! With that weight!!) we met a Scotsman of indeterminate age, anywhere from 60 to 110. Built of sinew, and whipcord, in a heavy Glasgow accent he told us he’d just finished his morning walk, Drymen and back. Very nearly our entire day. He’d been a fell-runner in his youth, with a WHW time of of something like 24 hours for 95 miles. We were planning 7 days. Bah, humbug.
The central lowlands landscape is fertile, green and pastoral. Looking back from high ground near Easter Drumquhassle, the Campsie Fells rise about the woods and fields and the air smells (frankly) of cows. I like the smell of cows 🙂
Road walking is hard on the feet, and it was a relief to reach the outskirts of Drymen as that meant the end of the first day was in sight. Almost. The walk to the far end of Garabhan Forest was hard, really hard. It was getting on for 1600 and we’d been walking since about 0800 that morning (with breaks about once an hour, perhaps 10 minutes or so, plus 30 minutes or so for lunch). The packs were heavy. Our feet ached. The sun was beating down. The road through the plantation seemed to wind on forever and then some. We muttered under our breath as we passed parties of day hikers looking positively bouncy. The campsite proved elusive; we dumped the packs where we thought it should be and wandered off through the trees, assessing spots where other people had clearly camped before, and chose a spot well off the the path. He was clearly very, very tired, so I left him to pitch the tent while I took our Katadyn water filter (my toy) and all our water containers about 1/4 mile back to the nearest stream. I felt so noble carrying 10l (that’s 10kg, or 22lb) of filtered water back to camp! Also tired. I had fondly imagined we’d cook and eat dinner, then sit around the Bush Buddy drinking hot chocolate and discussing our day, but just as I hung our freshly-washed underwear out to dry on a branch (was that TMI?) the midges woke up. And he said “Look, a tick“. And I spotted another tick. Ticks love me. I hate ticks. We dove into the tent, chatted for all of 5 minutes (if that) and were fast asleep by about 2030.
Confession time. During the working week we get up at 0500 Mon, Wed, and Fri to get to the gym for an hour or two before work. Tues and Thurs we sleep in until 0600. Is it any wonder that we woke at 0500 as usual? The midges were waiting… we moved fast. By 0600 the campsite looked like this:
Now. Here we start to diverge from this website. We started well beyond Drymen, in that bright yellow blotch on the right of the map. Walk out of that blotch (the trees) and you see Conic Hill.
Further along the WHW, at the far end of Glencoe, there is a hill known as ‘The Devil’s Staircase’. It sounds ominous. Reading some descriptions of the route, you can imagine yourself struggling up hairpin twists on a near-vertical wall of rocks. I tell you truly, it is as NOTHING compared to Conic Hill at the start of Day Two. It’s the first major hill, the trail goes up and up again, then down precipitously – and down is much, much harder on your knees and feet than up, even if using walking poles. (Which I firmly believe are essential tools for walkers. If you don’t walk with a pole, get one. If you walk with one pole, get a second. Your ankles, knees and quads will thank you.) And the packs are still full of food.
Just look at the change in the landscape by comparison with the Campsie Fells. Conic Hill lies right on the Highland Boundary Fault, which defines (strangely enough) the Highlands: south of the fault, the lowlands; north of the fault, the highlands. The water to the left is Loch Lomond. I tell you, that hill was worse than it looks, which is one of the reasons that there’s a plan to remove it from the WHW official route. And the walking gets even harder after that…
Isn’t that gorgeous? Loch Lomond through the trees with a hint of bluebells? I took so very few photos on our Day Two because we were too busy walking. Keeping our footing on twisting paths, steep short hills up and down, at one point climbing a *ladder* about 3m to get to the top of an outcrop. Down between boulders. Across a ledge cut into a sheet of rock. None of it a killer individually, but on the second day when your pack feels as though it’s filled with lead… it’s hard. Stop for a breather and the midgies will be on you within seconds. They can’t fly in winds higher than 4mph, but the trees stop the wind. Collapse happily onto the roadverge in the open and the ticks are on their way. Ticks love me. So we walked and we walked and we walked. We admired the bluebells and the ransoms (wild garlic). We arrived at Rowardennan (a frequent finish for Day Two) at about 1300, far too early to stop. So we continued walking. We played leapfrog with a party of the WI (Women’s Institute) from Barrow-in-Furness, wearing badges saying “I thought you said come for a TALK!” on a sponsored walk for the first three days of the route. We sweated. We ached. We thought about nice things, meals and hot showers and soft beds. We realised that the patch of grey in the trees was the slate roof of the Inversnaid Hotel, where such things would be found. I swore that when we made it to the hotel, I would get us a room. Whatever it cost. Fortunately they had a room. I have rarely enjoyed a shower so much. I took our clothes in with me, washed them and hung them to dry, and then we had a proper meal with dessert and returned to our room to lay out a ceremonial offering of the easy-cook risotto I’d planned for that evening. Memo to self: rice is TOO HEAVY to carry. Pot noodle, that’s what we should have had. None of this parmesan and risotto. I wonder what the room service person thought of it? Again we woke up early and decided not to wait for breakfast: put breakfast bars in our pockets, paid at the desk, shouldered our packs and… our march across the lobby slowed to a crawl as the slightly-more-aged-than-us tourists asked where we’d been, where we were going, how long it would take, and how much our packs weighed. But their gasps of admiration straightened our backs and spurred our resolve 🙂 Pathetic, isn’t it?
The lochside path remains hard going for about 6 km beyond Inversnaid, but the mountains were rising above us, we’d slept well (three cheers for Ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory, and Paracetamol, a painkiller), the sun was shining, and a breeze off the loch was discouraging the midges. We saw feral goats! The path leaves the shore near Doune, then returns after the bunkhouse. The white things beside the path seem to be bags of grit and gravel for path repairs that must have been helicoptered in – we couldn’t see any sign of vehicular access.
and shortly after that Loch Lomond is behind us and we’re heading north. The rising ground is obvious and relentless, but not killing. The packs are still heavy, but not so much that we dread putting them on after a break. Perhaps we’re getting used to this? As we sat admiring the Falls of Falloch (no kayakers that afternoon) we realised clouds were gathering. Soon the sun disappeared and our pack covers appeared (a wet pack is a heavy pack), and by the time we reached Derrydaroch it was, as his family says, persistenting down. Not heavy rain, but very wet. Beware the low passage under the railway, far too low for 6’4″: he was almost on hands and knees. By Kellator the rain had stopped, but the sky remained threatening and the wind had picked up. The Forestry Commission woodland above Crianlarich had few obvious locations for a camp, the best of which was on a patch of grass right beside the path. We opted for privacy in the fringe of the trees about 20m away, which was a big mistake. Although the WI didn’t spot us in the dusk as they walked and talked their way to Crianlarich and their finish, it rained again during the night which meant the trees rained on our tent ALL night. Trees drip. Wet tents are heavy. The path through the woods rises and falls steeply, twisting and turning down to streams and up again, the air is damp and we’re hot, and the midges are waiting if we stop. What happens next? Tune in for the next installment!